Consistently making correct decisions during the annual college draft is the most important—but certainly not only—facet of team-building in the NFL.
The franchises best suited to win now and in the future draft good players, develop those players in a set system, and then retain those players through second and third contracts.
While the Green Bay Packers have thrived under the draft-and-develop guidance of general manager Ted Thompson, two recent drafts—in 2011 and 2012—have produced only seven players that remain on the team's 90-man roster in mid-August of 2014. As pointed out by Rob Demovsky and Jason Wilde of ESPN, Green Bay's 7-of-18 retention rate ranks as the worst in the NFL over the 2011 and 2012 drafts. The Packers currently retain just four of the 10 players selected in 2011, and three of the eight from 2012, good for a 38.9 percent rate overall.
In some NFL cities, losing 11 players over the course of just two very recent draft classes might be the beginning of the end, a strain on roster depth too great to overcome. That doesn't appear to be the case in Green Bay, where Thompson has balanced out his draft misses with successes in the undrafted free agent market.
Jarrett Boykin, Sean Richardson, Don Barclay and Jamari Lattimore were all signed as free agents in either 2011 or 2012 and remain on the roster. M.D. Jennings, Vic So'oto and Dezman Moses also signed as undrafted free agents during the two-year stretch and at some point contributed.
In the last four years (not counting 2014, obviously), the Packers have kept 13 undrafted free agents on the opening 53-man roster. The total will likely increase by the end of this month.
It's not a perfect bartering system. There's simply no way to compare the lost value from a missed high pick to the success of a player who went undrafted but then stuck on an NFL roster. But the Packers remain a mostly deep team because of how highly the club values college free agency, and the opportunities given to players regardless of draft status.
Without this dedication, the Packers may have already started to unravel at the stitching of the roster.
“In terms of team building, we have put a bunch of work into and pride ourselves a little bit in the fact we take college free agents and made them part of our team and contributors,” Thompson said, via Wilde. “I think all of that is important. I think all of that is relevant. Sometimes you have draft choices and it doesn't work out, and that's my responsibility."
On Wednesday, defensive end Jerel Worthy became the 11th member of the 2011 and 2012 draft classes to depart Green Bay. The Packers traded Worthy, who hadn't practiced with the team all summer due to a back injury, to the New England Patriots in exchange for a conditional seventh-round pick. He passed a physical in New England and the trade was completed.
Worthy joins Alex Green, D.J. Williams, Caleb Schlauderaff, D.J. Smith, Ricky Elmore, Lawrence Guy, Jerron McMillian, Terrell Manning, Andrew Datko and B.J. Coleman as missed Thompson draft picks from 2011 and 2012. Some contributed in minor roles, a selected few were traded away and others flamed out without much of an tangible impact, in Green Bay or elsewhere.
Elmore, Datko and Coleman are out of the league. A few others are fighting for roster spots at select training camp locations this summer.
Misses in the later rounds, such as with Elmore, Guy, Datko and Coleman, do not deeply sting a franchise. However, striking out on Worthy, a second-round pick in 2012, does hurt, especially when Thompson moved up to No. 51 overall—giving up a fourth-round in the process—to get him.
Worthy is the highest of the 2011/12 picks to leave Green Bay. Green, a third-round pick in 2011, previously held the title. First-round picks Derek Sherrod and Nick Perry remain, although neither is or has been an impact player. Second-rounders Randall Cobb and Casey Hayward have been home runs, while Mike Daniels is arguably the best of the fourth-round selections from 2012.
Thompson has struggled at the the crapshoot in the later rounds. Of the seven players remaining from the two classes, only one—tight end Ryan Taylor—has stuck from the fifth round or lower. The eight others are gone.
Hitting in free agency has helped balance out the scales.
Boykin, Richardson, Barclay and Lattimore are far from world-beaters; in fact, only Boykin is certain to contribute anything more than a depth role in 2014. Barclay (knee) is out for the season, but he would have been a backup. Richardson has had a nice summer and Lattimore can start in a pinch. Neither are expected to start this season. Had Richardon been drafted in McMillian's slot, or Lattimore in Manning's, some might view each as bordering on "bust."
However, Thompson and the Packers don't sort their new assets simply by round drafted. Instead, the team provides all first-year players with a chance to make the team in August. The gap between a seventh-round pick and an undrafted player can close in a hurry during camp and the preseason.
At least three college free agents have made Green Bay's opening 53-man roster every year since 2010. Only two teams have had more undrafted free agents on the Week 1 roster than Green Bay over the last four years.
Draft misses hurt, especially in the case of Worthy. But Thompson has made amends in college free agency, where he has filled in the cracks that could have otherwise sunk Green Bay's roster depth.
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